Find more on biocultural territories of Latin America & the Caribbean

Latin America and the Caribbean are a cradle of millenary cultures and home to an immense wealth of biodiversity and food cultures—a region where each local area has its own distinctive identity.

Over the last 500 years the continent has been driven by different interests, from colonialism to the green revolution, from speculation to the commodification of natural resources.

This exhibition embraces these contradictions and revolves around five emblematic foods, which on the one hand symbolize the biological and cultural diversity of the continent, while on the other revealing the critical impact of the international commodities market on areas of origin.

 

 

The exhibition crosses the Latin American continent without regard for geo-political borders and interprets local areas through their ecosystems, peoples, cultures and traditional agricultural systems.

Mesoamerica is thus represented by the corn and the milpa cultivation system; the Caribbean and the Pacific by sugar cane, its agroecological cultivation techniques and two ancestral products, panela and viche; the Andes by quinoa and traditional systems of rotational crop cultivation for self-consumption; the Amazon by açaí and agroforestry systems for the production of other traditional plant varieties; the Atlantic Rainforest, finally, by cacao and the cabruca cultivation system.

Good, Clean and Fair Food for All
The urgent need to reshape the agrifood system is becoming clearer every day. The current system is the main source of our health and environmental problems and is creating imbalances in economic and social dynamics.
We at Slow Food are committed to transforming the food systems to guarantee GOOD, CLEAN and FAIR FOOD FOR ALL.
To achieve this goal, we must mobilize our network around the world on three broad fronts: by valuing and safeguarding food biodiversity and food culture; by promoting food and taste education; and by advocating for food policies.
In the world that we envision, everyone respects and promotes diversity of people, cultures, places, foods and tastes.
In the world that we envision, people are closely linked with agricultural ecosystems and food systems that ensure decent working conditions, fair pay and access for all.

Biodiversity according to Slow Food
For more than 20 years, Slow Food has valued and publicized the importance of biodiversity for agriculture and food sustainability.
We are referring to the diversity of plant and animal species, microorganisms, genes and ecosystems. But also to the knowledge of the farmers and indigenous peoples who have given life to countless plant and animal varieties and breeds. Biodiversity is not just wild, it is also the result of cultural and social construction.
Biodiversity enables agricultural systems to resist environmental shocks, climate crisis and pandemics. It provides essential ecosystem services, such as pollination and soil fertility.
Agroecology, the protection of biodiversity and the acknowledgment of people who manage it—this is the only solution we have if we are to go on living on this planet.

THE DIVERSITY PATH
Slow Food protects biological and cultural diversity and considers food culture one of the major expressions of local identity.
Promoting diversity means safeguarding not only plant and animal varieties and breeds, but also the food heritage of farmers, indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants, as well as traditional knowledge, techniques and practices.

Agroecology
Agroecology is a paradigm that proposes and enables changes in social, political, productive and economic relations to transform the way people produce and consume food, and to restore a socio-cultural reality devastated by industrial food production. Agroecology is not just about a set of techniques and productive practices, but also a way of life in harmony with the language of nature.
Agroecology values local knowledge, builds social justice, promotes cultural identity and strengthens the economic viability of rural and urban areas.

Food sovereignty
Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods.  It is the right of people to define their own food and agriculture systems. Food sovereignty is related to social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations.

Right to water, land, seeds and culture 
The right to water, land, seeds, and culture stands at the forefront of the fight for food sovereignty and environmental justice. We at Slow Food advocate for community-led water, land and seed management and reclaim agency over agricultural and food systems, rejecting the commodification of food in favor of culturally relevant and ecologically sound practices.

THE MONOCULTURE PATH
The industrialization of food has undermined biodiversity and the rich heritage of traditional food knowledge accumulated throughout the history of agriculture.

Instead of as a right, food is now being treated as a mere commodity.
 
GMO, monoculture and pesticides
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), monocropping, and large-scale agriculture rely heavily on pesticides, synthetic chemicals derived from petroleum, and agricultural machinery powered by fossil fuels. This approach prioritizes uniformity in farming practices, exploits natural resources, and allows corporations to assert their control of seeds with patents. Simultaneously, the adoption of technological solutions alongside financial incentives, such as subsidies, tax exemptions and waivers, further solidifies the influence of major multinational corporations, exacerbating issues such as food deserts.

Hunger, food insecurity and diseases
In 2023, almost 30% of the global population was without constant access to food. Ultra-processed and nutrient-poor foods increasingly contribute to malnutrition and replace local and seasonal ingredients. Small-scale farmers have been excluded from value chains, industrial food production is export-oriented and, as a consequence, the capacity of people to access healthy diets has deteriorated across the world.

Land and Ocean Grabbing
Land and ocean grabbing occurs when governments, private investors and powerful elites seize vast swathes of land and water, exploiting resources for profit or speculative gain without consulting or receiving the prior consent of local communities.
This practice disrupts traditional livelihoods and strips fishers of their traditional fishing rights and access to coastal waters, thus leading to poverty, rural displacement, overfishing and environmental degradation, while at the same time depriving farmers of their natural resources, pushing them into poverty and exacerbating the exodus form the land.

Gender, class and race inequalities
In the challenge we face with food systems, the principles of equity, inclusion, and justice appear as pivotal pillars. The journey towards food justice encompasses the social, economic and environmental spheres and involves issues such as modern slavery and economic exploitation in food chains, lack of access to healthy foods for marginalized communities and environmental racism.

  • The Berry That Took Over the World

    Have you ever tasted açaí? If so, you’ve probably eaten this tart, dark-purple fruit pureed and served in a bowl with various toppings. But the version of açaí that travels around the world is quite different from that traditionally eaten by the Indigenous and riverside peoples of the Amazon, its place of origin. And the berry’s worldwide popularity has come at a high cost to them.

    An Amazonian staple
    The açaí palm (Euterpe oleracea) grows most abundantly along the rivers and streams of the Amazon estuary in Brazil, an area similar in size to that of the Great Lakes region of North America. The palm flourishes here thanks to the specific soil type, drainage, climate, humidity, light and rainfall but the trees can also be found across a much wider area, including in Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Guyana, Surinam and Panama.

    The oldest archaeological evidence of the use of açaí dates back almost 12,000 years to the earliest human occupation of the Amazon rainforest and the discovery of Terra Preta de Indio, also known as “Amazonian dark earth,” a very fertile soil. The first evidence of açaí’s use by humans has been found in the Caverna da Pedra Pintada near the town of Monte Alegre in the Brazilian state of Parà, on the banks of the Xingu River, more than 600 km away from its mouth on the Amazon River.

    In the cultures of the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon, açaí is associated with times of scarcity, with the fruit seen as essential to combating hunger. A staple of local food culture, it is seen primarily as a savory side dish. Mixed with water or tapioca flour (a by-product of cassava), it typically accompanies meats, fried or stewed fish and shrimp. Crucial for the health of those who eat it daily, it is a staple in the diet of rural populations in the Amazon and also represents economic subsistence for a number of riverside communities.

    How açaí conquered Brazil and the world
    Açaí began gaining social, economic, agronomic, ethnobotanical, anthropological, political and historical visibility in the 1960s. But it was only in the 1990s that it began to attract a larger audience thanks to its antioxidant properties and high energy content, not to mention its “good fat,” which has made it popular with fitness enthusiasts and the health-conscious.

    The fruit’s Brazilian market started to expand and it began to appear in sweets and in a puree similar to ice cream, often accompanied by fresh fruit and additional high-energy, functional toppings such as honey, peanuts, tree nuts, granola or guarana syrup. This new format quickly led to mainstream popularity. From being a staple for peasants, Indigenous peoples, traditional communities and Amazonian families, açaí became a favorite among gym-goers and people concerned with nutrition, winning over higher-income consumers in the wealthiest regions of Brazil. Riding the wave of interest in the rainforest generated by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, açaí began to be marketed as a “product of the Amazon” with fanciful advertising designed to promote the region’s “sustainable development.” The campaign’s success was confirmed in 2000 when açaì began to be exported, mainly in the form of purees, frozen pasteurized pulp and powder.

    In contrast with its international reputation as a fashionable superfood, in Brazil açaí is now seen as an affordable, restorative and filling junk food served with fresh fruit, peanuts and granola or blended with ultra-processed products such as condensed, powdered and instant milk. Ready-made versions of açaí in this form are highly processed and contain stabilizers, flavorings, emulsifiers and all sorts of other additives, with perhaps as little as 5% of actual fruit pulp.

    Açaí’s popularity continues to grow. The Brazilian state of Parà produces over 90% of the açaí sold in Brazil and the rest of the world, and between 2011 and 2020, it increased its exports of the fruit by close to 15,000%. More than 30% of Brazil’s açaí exports go to the USA, but American consumers have not incorporated the fruit into their diet or started using it as a culinary ingredient. Instead, the food industry uses it as a base for industrialized products. In fact, the USA is the country that launches and exports the most açaí-based products.

    A threat to the Amazon and its peoples
    To meet the ever-growing market demand for açaí, swathes of the Amazonian floodplain have been transformed into monocultures, decimating the characteristic biodiversity of native vegetation. The açaí palms have also been subjected to genetic enhancement in order to increase productivity and quality, ensure greater resistance to major diseases and allow their cultivation on drier land. These açaí monocultures depend on intensive treatment with chemicals and premature harvesting, meaning their fruits are now relatively flavorless, nutritionless and unhealthy.

    The so-called “açaízation” of the Amazon puts the entire ecosystem at risk, eliminating plants and animals important for the natural dynamics of the forest while contributing to the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and soil degradation.

    By introducing a series of intermediaries to the production chain, commercialization has had a direct effect on the social dynamics of the region, raising costs so much that açaí has become unaffordable for the local population—including families that pick the fruit but have stopped processing it—even during harvest seasons. Since açaí is a staple of the traditional diet, these changes also affect health and dietary habits. Açaí is no longer the source of nourishment it used to be, partly due to the drop in quality and partly because of its rising cost. This has led to an increase in the consumption of more affordable ultra-processed foods and sometimes even to hunger. Meanwhile, quality açaí is becoming a niche commodity. The resulting loss of food culture has been devastating.

    A risky and invisible job
    Though according to official data it accounts for less than 10% of total national production, around 1.7 million tons in 2022, extractivism (the removal of natural resources particularly for export with minimal processing) plays a significant role in açaí harvesting.

    Even in planted monocultures, the harvesting method remains basically the same, relying on agile individuals known as peconheiros who have the skills required to climb the slender palm trees, 12 to 15 meters tall, and cut the fruit clusters manually.

    This activity used to be performed once a day to harvest two clusters, enough to feed a family. Now during the harvest season, the peconheiros climb an average of 15 palm trees a day. To make their work more productive, they cut up to four clusters at a time and descend from the palm tree down a peconha, a sort of ladder of twisted fibers, holding their machete in one hand and the clusters of fruit, weighing about 20 kilograms, in the other.

    The peconheiros wear no protective equipment and in case of any accident, the nearest hospital is usually far away. Though crucial to the production chain, their risky work is all but invisible within the açaí industry. In artisanal production, harvesting, processing and consumption tend to all be close together. In commercial production, the distances are much greater and many more stages and intermediaries are needed due to logistics and the need to preserve this highly perishable food.

    A sustainable example from the Slow Food network
    The community living on Ilha das Cinzas, in the Marajó archipelago at the mouth of the Amazon River, uses agroecology principles to manage açaí production. These members of the Slow Food Brazil network have managed to reconcile income generation with quality of life, environmental conservation and the preservation of food culture.

    The group of 62 families manages açaí palms growing naturally the forest and have organized a production system committed to the local consumption of quality pulp (wild açaí has superior nutritional and sensory characteristics compared to cultivated açaí). Between 2021 and 2022 they succeeded in making more than 15 tons available for public procurement, especially by schools in the region. The viability of this harvesting activity is an important sign of the health of the local vegetation, which still sustains a large number of açaí palms.

    Along with other foods, whether harvested from the wild or cultivated, Ilha das Cinzas açaí is part of a biodiverse, low-impact Sistema Agrícola Tradicional (Traditional Agricultural System, or SAT). The system also promotes gender equality, as women oversee much of the management and play a leading role in decision-making.

    Slow Food has helped to boost the visibility of the community’s culture and history, encouraging recognition of the importance of its traditional practices and promoting this valuable example of how açaí production can truly be sustainable.

  • The Hidden Side of Chocolate

    Chocolate is one of the best-loved foods in the world. But how many people know where it comes from, or realize that behind the sweetness of every bite lies the hard work of a multitude of small-scale farmers?

    These farmers, living in the tropical forest areas of countries like Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Indonesia, Ecuador and Brazil, are the ones who grow cocoa, chocolate’s most important ingredient.

    Cocoa comes from Theobroma cocoa, a tree native to the Amazon, with thick-shelled fruits, oval in shape, like an American football, and with a color that ranges from green to purple and yellow to orange as they ripen and depending on the variety. Inside each fruit are 20 to 40 seeds, also oval, in a sweet white pulp. It is these seeds that are harvested, fermented and dried to make cocoa beans, which are then sent around the world to be turned into chocolate.

    From Mesoamerican ritual to European delicacy
    Although recent studies indicate that cocoa was first domesticated in South America in what is now Ecuador, it was thanks to the Olmecas, Mayans and Aztecs in Central America that cocoa as we know it today acquired cultural and economic importance.

    The Mayans and Aztecs produced a refreshing, stimulating beverage by dissolving roasted and ground cocoa beans in water and adding spices such as chili, vanilla and allspice. The resulting bitter, frothy beverage was seen as a divine elixir, and consumed during sacred rituals.

    During the colonial period, the Spanish took some time to get used to the peculiar taste of the beverage. The addition of sugar cane, cinnamon and anise made it more appealing to them and led to it becoming part of the creole diet.

    For better preservation on long sea journeys across the Atlantic and to enable distribution throughout Europe, a preparation method already known to the Aztecs was adopted: The powdered cocoa was pressed into tablets that were melted in water prior to drinking it hot and sweetened in the Spanish style. By the end of the 16th century, the beverage was known in Europe no longer as cocoa (a name of Mayan origin, but also adopted by the Aztecs and other Mexican peoples) but as chocolate, possibly a neologism coined by the Spanish from a Mayan term, “chocol” (meaning “hot”) and an Aztec term, “atl” (meaning “water”).

    During the 17th century, chocolate as a beverage became an indispensable delicacy among the European nobility. But it was only in the 18th century that sugar and cocoa butter were blended with cocoa powder to form a paste that could be molded into tablets to give the product the characteristics we are familiar with today. Later powdered milk was incorporated into the mixture and milk chocolate was born. Chocolate had ceased to be an exotic treat for the elite and began to be manufactured for mass consumption.

    Cocoa as a commodity
    Chocolate’s popularity conceals the fact that the vast majority of cocoa farmers are poorly paid and work in tough conditions. Not to mention that the use of child labor on cocoa farms is sadly common.

    Cocoa beans are usually sold to intermediaries who in turn sell them on to the big processing companies, such as Barry Callebaut, Cargill and Olam. They transform the beans into products such as cocoa powder, liquor (also known as paste or cocoa mass), cocoa cake and cocoa butter to be sold to manufacturers such as Nestlé, Mondelez, Mars, Cadbury, Hershey, Ferrero, Lindt and many others, who produce and package chocolate bars and the like before shipping them to distributors and retailers.

    The cocoa supply chain has a typical hourglass shape, with a large base of farmers, only a few exporters and processors (75% of world trade is controlled by just nine processors and manufacturers) and millions of consumers. Brands and retailers capture an estimated 90% of the value in cocoa supply chains, while just 7.5% accrues to farmers and workers.

    Sweet, indeed
    Good, clean and fair chocolate comes from agroecological systems that ensure farmers are paid properly and biodiversity is respected. Ideally, chocolate is produced “bean to bar” by the farmers themselves and reaches the consumer market with a minimum of intermediaries, but with added value. In order to strengthen cocoa farmers, their communities and their areas, Slow Food is advocating for better remuneration and formalized labor relations, as well as incentives for agroecological systems and the diversification of crops to preserve biodiversity and improve farmers’ resilience to cocoa price fluctuations. It is also looking to boost value aggregation so that the end price of products covers the farmers’ investments. To achieve this, it is fundamental to promote associations and cooperativism and expand access to credit and technical assistance so that farmers have the investments and knowledge needed to produce high-quality cocoa and bean-to-bar chocolate. Slow Food is also working to democratize fair trade and organic certification by expanding access to the market.

    A Brazilian Presidium for sustainable cacao
    In the coastal region of Bahia state, in northeast Brazil, 80% of small rural plots are dedicated to cocoa cultivation, most of them adopting a system known as cabruca, which involves growing cocoa in the native forest understory, the layer between the forest floor and the canopy. This helps preserve the remaining fragments of the Atlantic Forest and conserves water resources, soil and fauna.

    Slow Food has established the Southern Bahia Cabruca Cacao Presidium in the Dois Riachões Settlement, an agrarian reform community based on the principles of the cooperative movement. Cocoa is grown both on individual plots and common ones managed by a local association.

    The community consists of 39 families, all organic producers (certified by the Brazilian Organic Conformity Assessment System, OPAC), who routinely organize themselves into work teams for cocoa management activities. Now, following collective training, they produce high-quality chocolate within the settlement itself.

    Dois Riachões is an example of agroecological transition. When the land was first settled in 2007, it consisted mainly of pastures and abandoned cocoa monocultures, but today it produces a variety of products, feeding the families and supplying the markets of the region.

    How can we help the cocoa chain?
    The answer is by taking responsibility as consumers and prioritizing the purchase of certified products. Certification systems focused on overcoming environmental and social impacts feature more and more in the cocoa supply chain. These guarantee systems, which include Fairtrade International and the Rainforest Alliance, help identify products whose supply chains ensure better working conditions and business opportunities for farmers. Otherwise, they will continue to be exploited by the multinational-driven chocolate industry.

  • The Three Sisters of the Milpa

    Corn, one of mankind’s earliest cultivated crops, originated between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago in Mexico. Archaeological remains of corn cobs more than 5,000 years old have been found in caves inhabited by ancient populations.

    Along with beans and squash, corn is also a key element of the “Mesoamerican triad,” also known as “the three sisters” and considered the core of the milpa, a traditional agricultural system adapted to rain-fed conditions. In the milpa ecosystem, all the different available resources complement each other and all the products obtained from the milpa contribute to a balanced diet. Each milpa has its own specific features, meaning that there is no single type of milpa.

    The milpa system originated in the cultural region of Mesoamerica, which includes the southern half of Mexico and parts of Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, Honduras, western Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The milpa has developed gradually over time, incorporating new species to reach polycultures of up to 20 to 30 species and consolidating its position as the basis for the traditional Mesoamerican diet.

    “Our existence depends on corn”
    Corn has long occupied a central position in Mesoamerican cultures. It was considered sacred and essential to cultural identity, the pillar of the development of civilizations. It represented the universe itself and was seen as the source of the creation of the first human beings. In addition to its importance in the agricultural calendar, corn was fundamental in celebrations related to fertility and creativity.

    Corn and the milpa not only satisfied the physical needs of communities, but also nourished their soul and identity. They were symbols of cultural roots, transmitted from an early age as a vital legacy. As one community member put it: “From the time we are very young, almost from when we start walking and talking, we are taught that our existence depends on corn. ‘You must take care of the corn,’ that’s what our grandparents have always passed on to us.” For many, corn was equated with the spirit itself, known as ch’ulel in local lore.

    The cycles of corn planting and harvesting and the milpa shaped not only the life of communities, but also enriched their world view, deepening their connection with nature and their understanding of the interdependence between mankind and the environment.

    Commodification and corporatization
    In Mexico, a “modernization program for the Mexican countryside” was implemented in 1990 in preparation for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which resulted in the liberalization of seed imports in 1994 and the deregulation and privatization of the corn-tortilla chain. Although family farming did not completely disappear when it came to corn cultivation the milpa system, the model certainly faced new difficulties on the domestic market.

    Currently, international trade in cereals and grains is largely dominated by four large traders: Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus, known as the ABCDs. Corn plays a crucial role in the global food industry and is an almost ubiquitous ingredient in ultra-processed foods.

    Despite the diversity of corn varieties in South America, with 64 varieties in Mexico, the agri-food industry focuses mainly on two types: industrially grown, often genetically modified yellow and white corn. The corporatization of corn in Mexico has had significant impacts on local communities, leading to a loss of biodiversity, the displacement of traditional agricultural practices and the erosion of cultural and gastronomic heritage.

    These impacts include a gradual reduction of the genetic diversity of corn and a decline of ancestral agricultural knowledge, affecting the cultural identity and autonomy of communities. In addition, the promotion of genetically modified seeds and the intensive use of agrochemicals have led to greater dependence on external inputs, increasing production costs and the economic vulnerability of local communities. This has led to a concentration of economic power in the hands of multinational corporations, exacerbating economic inequalities.

    Preserving the milpa
    To combat this trend, Slow Food has developed a Presidium project mainly in two regions of the state of Chiapas: Los Altos de Chiapas and the Comiteca Plateau. A group of local seed guardians works closely with CISERP A.C., while a second group is made up of the cooperative of women producers of tostadas, TOSTIXIM, active in the Comiteca Plateau and part of Los Altos.

    The main objective of the Presidium is to address the problems that have arisen from the replacement of the milpa system by monocultures. Actions include the safeguarding of native seeds and caring for those that are at risk of disappearing. Presidium members are also dedicated to reforesting previously deforested land by planting milpas interspersed with fruit trees. The guardians also promote agroecological practices in order to reduce dependence on external inputs.

    The women of the TOSTIXIM cooperative, artisan producers of corn tostadas from Chiapas, market their products under this brand. To make their tostadas, they use several varieties of native corn grown using agroecological practices. They preserve the traditional technique of roasting corn in wood-burning stoves, as well as the nixtamalization process. These techniques have been passed down from generation to generation, and the flavors of the tostadas reflect the diversity of the milpa, thus establishing a direct dialog with the forest.

    The Presidium project has highlighted the work of women and their knowledge, promoting seed exchanges that make it possible to preserve and increase genetic diversity. This conservation is essential to ensure crop resistance to diseases, pests and the changing climate. It also ensures access to nutritious food adapted to different environmental conditions, encouraging the diversification of diets and preparing communities for possible food crises.

    Seed exchanges also involve the transfer of traditional agricultural knowledge and practices, strengthening the autonomy and decision-making capacity of communities. The preparation and consumption of traditional tostadas made with ingredients from the milpa help to preserve recipes and culinary techniques passed down from generation to generation, thus keeping cultural identity alive and strengthening the link with the community’s gastronomic heritage.

    These activities not only promote dietary diversity and provide essential nutrients, but can also become social activities that strengthen community ties. The greatest impact of the project can be seen in the collective collaboration to address environmental issues, such as the replacement of traditional agricultural techniques and excessive waste management. In addition, rescuing and safeguarding corn and vegetable seeds has created opportunities to interact and collaborate with other groups, collectives and organizations.

  • Moving On From Sugar Cane’s Colonial Legacy

    Originating in Asia, sugar cane first spread through India and then on to the Americas, arriving in 1493 in the Dominican Republic where the crop flourished the warm, humid climate of the Caribbean region. Its cultivation and processing were soon linked to the practice of slavery. The intensive use of slaves meant that after the Haitian Revolution and the country’s subsequent independence, the sugar-cane industry lost the region’s main producer. Then production stagnated in Puerto Rico when slavery decreased in the 1800s. Cuba stepped up to meet the resulting demand from the United States, and by the end of the 19th century it was considered the world’s largest sugar producer.

    A bitter history
    As a result of this history, sugar cane and sugar are an integral part of the culture and traditions of the Caribbean people. For a long time during the colonial period the industry was characterized by social injustice and immense cruelty, with many Africans brought as slaves to work on the sugar cane plantations and in the sugar mills.

    The diet of the slaves who worked on the plantations and in the mills was based primarily on the juice or sugar that they scraped from the boilers, and their eating habits ended up influencing the diets of the plantation owners, families and visitors. The slaves were also in charge of cooking, and would prepare and serve different desserts at every meal. Some even received training with nuns, since sweet dishes prepared in convents became popular at that time, and the Spanish mill owners and landowners would send their slaves to the convents to learn the arts of conventual confectionery. A high consumption of sugar has remained a dietary habit in the sugar-producing Caribbean islands ever since.

    Cuba also has other historical reasons for its love of sugar. After 1959, the Cuban Revolution led to more sugar being added to families’ basic food basket, with more than 5 kilos of sugar per person per month subsidized for more than five decades. In recent years, however, this standardized distribution has been decreasing in line with the country’s declining sugar production.

    An addictive commodity
    The link between sugar and slavery shaped the colonial history of the Caribbean for centuries. Sugar cane cultivation was an important cash crop for the colonies and was marked by inhumanity from the outset. The economy at the time was based on the unrestricted exploitation of people who were forcibly brought from Africa and made slaves. The sugar industry was also responsible for environmental degradation due to the indiscriminate felling of natural forests, which continued well into the first half of the 20th century.

    A strategy of agricultural diversification was drawn up for Cuba in the post-1959 revolutionary period. One of the fundamental objectives was to reduce dependence on the sugar cane monoculture. Nonetheless, for more than thirty years, between 1960 and 1990, the industry led the country’s economic development, with around 50% of agricultural land dedicated to the crop. Practices such as the intensive exploitation of soil, the use of agrochemicals and agricultural machinery and the burning of stubble and residues from sugar cane production predominated until the end of the 20th century, gradually causing extensive soil degradation and a steady decline in productivity. This resulted in several sugar companies going out of business and the impoverishment of communities that depended on the culture and trade surrounding sugar due to job losses, trade and migration.

    Refined sugar obtained through agroindustrial processes has become an ingredient used in most processed products in the food industry. In addition to all the ecological and cultural problems linked to its production, sugar consumption is addictive and has been linked to various diseases worldwide.

    These days there is widespread recognition that there must be a move away from the unsustainable practices common in sugar cane cultivation and in the sugar agroindustry and towards models with good diversification and sustainability practices. In addition, constant price variability in the international market has led to an attempt to increase the production of related products, such as animal feed and alcoholic beverages of various kinds. In Cuba, the shift is towards sugar production without external energy consumption, leaving the considerable energy surpluses available for other uses.

    Sugar cane is a crop with an extraordinary capacity. With sustainable management and under good cultivation conditions, it allows for greater use of solar energy and consequently, a greater CO2 absorption coefficient, which represents an important ecological contribution towards alleviating global warming.

    Slow Food in action
    In the Caribbean, new cultural approaches are being explored in order to protect the sugar-cane traditions now at risk of extinction and to shift towards sustainable farming systems. When sustainably cultivated, sugar cane is a good source of essential nutrients. Agroecological products obtained from sugar cane contribute to functional biodiversity, ecological restoration, job creation, stimulation of domestic economies, expansion of the range of products for consumption and trade and community dialog and learning processes for collaboration between producers and co-producers.

    At the Finca del Medio and other Slow Food-affiliated farms in Cuba, sugar cane has become a source of wealth in terms of both knowledge and income for families and the community. It is used by the families and for animals and also to produce other value-added products based on the local history and identity which are then sold as part of agroecological tourism, such as syrup, sugar-cane honey, rapadura (unrefined whole cane sugar), desserts, fruit wines and high-quality vinegars. Sugar cane grown and processed according to Slow Food principles helps make farms and regions independent, establishing their own production and consumption models and involving farmers and co-producers in new production habits and the consumption of good, clean and fair food.

  • From the Andes to International Superfood

    From the Andes to International Superfood
    Gluten-free and high in protein, fiber and minerals—perhaps you’ve already heard that quinoa is a superfood. But did you know that there are more than 6,000 existing varieties, even though just four dominate the international market? Or that the rising global interest is having a severe impact on its traditional regions of production?

    Native to the Andes, the quinoa plant (Chenopodium quinoa) was domesticated by Indigenous populations in countries such as Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina as far back as 8000 BC.

    The rich diversity of quinoa in this region is evident in the wide variety of edible varieties, all with different sizes, colors and a range of flavors that have been highlighted in local dishes since pre-Columbian times.

    When the Spanish arrived in America in the 16th century, the introduction of exotic crops such as wheat, barley, oats, beans and peas went hand-in-hand with a spreading culture of discrimination against local foods. Over the centuries, quinoa lost popularity, especially in urban areas.

    Its cultural significance, however, remained protected in Aymara and Quechua Indigenous communities and it can still be found at communal festivities and in a variety of local dishes, such as quispiño and kispiño, as well as beverages like ulpada and chicha de 7 semillas. Before planting and harvesting quinoa, an ayni ceremony, representing payment to Pachamama, is still performed.

    In Peru, a common practice among communities is crop rotation, known as aynoca, with quinoa alternated with other native foods. The harvest is eaten at home, sold at the market, bartered, exchanged for seed or used for apachicuy. Apachicuy is the practice of sending surplus production to relatives in Lima or other cities: effectively sending love in the form of food. Products and seeds are commonly exchanged or bartered among community members and communities. These traditional practices strengthen the local social fabric.

    Nutrition in the spotlight, biodiversity at risk
    However, with the scientific confirmation of its nutritional properties, the fate of quinoa and its guardians began to change in the late 20th century. What was once exclusively enjoyed by Andean Indigenous peoples became a food of great global interest and exports to the United States, Europe and Australia surged from the 1980s on.

    International demand has led to the intensification of cultivation, especially in Peru and Bolivia. This has increased pressure on local biodiversity and replaced a mosaic of crops (peanuts, corn, potatoes, avocados, etc.) with a monoculture grown for export.

    In addition to the environmental consequences, the globalization of interest in quinoa has caused significant social impacts. In just a few years, the price of quinoa tripled on the local and international markets, restricting access to what is now a food for the elite. Poor families, especially those living in urban areas, can no longer afford to include it in their daily diet.

    And this international appreciation has not necessarily benefited the farmers. Resellers dominate the local market in Peru, offering only a few varieties at prices that do not reflect the real value of the producers’ efforts.

    Cultivation systems began to prioritize the most productive commercial varieties, relegating native and indigenous varieties to the background. Out of the thousands of types of quinoa, only four are grown for the national and export markets: two varieties of white quinoa, one red and one black. These changes reduce the diversity of local varieties and limit the exchange of knowledge between generations.

    Despite being a tradition in peasant communities, quinoa has lost value among young people. However, since the producers are mostly elderly and not as proficient in social media, young people play a crucial role in connecting producers and consumers and revitalizing interest in the diversity of this valuable crop.

    The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa, recognizing its nutritional importance, cultural value and potential to contribute to global food security.

     

    Recovering ancestral knowledge
    Mindful of the issues facing quinoa in the Andean region, the Slow Food network believes that it is essential to revalue the diversity of native quinoas and preserve ancestral knowledge around the crop.

    In Peru, the world’s leading quinoa producer, the Slow Food Community of Cusco has used gastronomy as its main tool for action. Through workshops, talks and food education events, they have established a bridge between producers and consumers, promoting traditional recipes and highlighting the importance of their conservation and local promotion.

    Although Slow Food members are primarily motivated by pride in preserving ancestral knowledge, it’s worth noting that this practice can also be profitable and sustainable in the long term. The goal is for this dignified and profitable work to serve as an incentive for the new generation of quinoa producers, so that they can follow in their parents’ footsteps with a newfound pride in this traditional crop.

Curatorial Team
Chiara Davico
Jerônimo Villas-Bôas
Valentina Bianco

Content Team
Glenn Massakazu Makuta
Jerônimo Villas-Bôas
Leidy Casimiro Rodríguez
Liza Melina Meza Flores
Maria do Socorro Almeida Nascimento
Sarah Cigna Palacios
Yolotzin Magdalena Bravo Espinosa
Valentina Bianco

Photos
Alejandro Osses Saenz, Fellipe Abreu, Gabriela Sanabria, Raoni Godinho / © 2024 Tabôa Fortalecimento Comunitário – todos os direitos reservados. Licenciado para Slow Food / © 2015 FAO Bolivia – todos los derechos reservados.

En licencia a Slow Food
Adobe Stock: Aleksandr, Alfredo, Alfredo914, Alisa, Antoine, Artrolopzimages, Atstock Productions, Elleonzebon, Eric Gevaert, Exclusive-design, Fotos 593, Gustavo, Imagika, Johan Larson, Kaentian, Leo Benone, Lightfield Studios, L.tom, Luis Echeverri Urrea, [email protected], Mago Photo, Mauricio Toro, Mikolette Moller/peopleimages.com, Milosz Maslanka, Mnimage, Monticellllo, Panaramka, Panitan, Patpitchaya, Paulo, Reisegraf, Silvia Truessel, Volodymyr, Wagner

Unsplash: Aaron Doucett, Alexander Schimmeck, André Kilchenmann, Arusfly, Dean Ricciardi, Drew Dempsey, Emre, Esther Ní Dhonnacha, Ivan Bandura, James Baltx,

Johny Goerend, Leks Quintero, Mauro Tandoi, Nguyen Linh, Pablo Merchán Montes, Red Zeppelin, Rofrigo Flores, Shaun Coward, Sunira Moses,

Tim Foster, Victoria Hansen and White Field.

Design
Gabriela Bonilha
Marcelo de Podestá

This exhibition was possible also thanks to:
Organizations
Associação dos Trabalhadores Agroextrativistas da Ilha das Cinzas – ATAIC, Brasil
Comunidad Slow Food Sumaq Kausay Cusco, Perú
Finca Slow del Medio, Santa Ana, El Renacer y Vista Hermosa, Cuba
Movimiento de Alimentación Sostenible en Cuba
Tabôa Fortalecimento Comunitário, Brasil
TOSTIXIM e CISERP A.C., Mexico

Slow Food network – resource peoples
Alejandro Solano, Ecuador
Ana Jaqueline Paquita Flores, Perú
Hipólito Israel Pérez Iglesia, Cuba
Irán Rodríguez Delgado, Cuba
Javier Jaime Condori Castañeda, Perú
Josineide Malheiros, Brasil
Julio Cruz Tacac, Perú
Pedro Xavier da Silva, Brasil
Roció Zúñiga Moreno, Perú
Sergio Rodríguez Jiménez, Cuba

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